Money Will Ruin Your Life if You Let It

Sarah had a thing for wealthy men and living a lavish lifestyle.  This probably explains why, though married, she was $5.8 million in debt and photographed fooling around with a Texas millionaire.

Following separation from her husband, the tabloids caught up to her again, this time getting a toe job from a Wall Street banker while topless.  In the divorce, she receives a $4 million lump sum and twenty thousand dollars annually, enough to keep most people out of trouble.  But not Sarah.

She builds a profitable business in the U.S. to support her extravagant spending.  But eventually her enterprise fails, and Sarah once again finds herself in debt, this time $4 million.  As a favor to her ex-husband, Jeffrey Epstein (yeah, that guy) steps in to help out.  

She authors a children’s book series, appears in the season 4 finale of Friends alongside Joey and his ridiculous Union Jack hat, and confesses on “Larry King Live” that she is financially “out of control”.  On her own reality TV show, she receives a stern lecture on financial discipline from none other than Suze Orman.

But Sarah’s problems don’t stop with finances; she also struggles with weight.  To the shock of television viewers everywhere, she appears in Weight Watchers commercials.  In time she blows through that money, too, leaving her impoverished once again.  

At this point, Sarah is desperate and comes up with her finest money-making scheme yet:  selling access to her ex-husband.  What could go wrong?  “if you want to meet him in your business, look after me and he’ll look after you,” she says to the wealthy Gulf businessman. “£500,000 [$685,000] when you can, to me, open doors”.  

Unfortunately for Sarah, the buyer turns out to be a reporter better known as the “Fake Sheikh." And her ex-husband?  Let’s just say he is Prince Andrew, Duke of York.  Sarah Ferguson lands once again on the cover of the tabloids.  This time humiliating not only herself but the entire Royal Family.

Obsessed With Money

Perhaps no other topic gets more of our individual and collective attention than money.  Possibly even more than sex.  Money is arguably the most sought after and fought over topic of our time.

We’re obsessed, bonkers, nutso over money.  We revere it, divorce over it, fight wars and commit suicide, all in the name of money.  Money, money, money.  

We spend most of our waking hours devoted to money - how to make it, how to spend it, and how life will look like when we have more of it.    

Money is not just an idea.  Money is part of our cultural DNA permeating and saturating every aspect of daily life.  Nobody is immune to its relentless forces or free from its tyrannical grip, no thread of life untouched.  

Money is the looming monster and American sport, it's dark shadow everywhere. ~ William Zinsser

Money Makes Us Do Dumb Things

When it comes to money, there is no shortage of rational decision-making.

We drive to Dairy Queen, I mean Starbucks, in expensive metal boxes and sip a $5.00 liquid coffee sundaes while complaining about our jobs.  We willingly endure among the world’s longest workweeks while forgoing billions of paid vacation hours annually.  

“Look at all those people waiting in line to get ripped off,” my friend commented about the people queued up at Pinkberry yogurt.  I didn’t tell her that I had been ripped off too.  

We spend $3.50 on a bottle of SmartWater containing one-tenth of a penny’s worth of electrolytes when we could be lying on a tropical beach rehydrating with a similar bottle of water that costs ten cents.

It’s like that scene in “Idiocracy”:

Joe:  “For the last time, I'm pretty sure what's killing the crops is this Brawndo stuff.”

Secretary of State:  “But Brawndo's got what plants crave.  It's got electrolytes.” 

Perhaps they should call it DumbWater so we can all go back to drinking tap water.

When we’re not working, we’re regularly scheming to save a buck.  

On any given Saturday you can find us driving our SUV three miles out of the way to save $1.10 on a tank of gas (I’ll let you do the math), or spending twenty hours shopping for the latest pixel-perfect flat-screen TV while spending twenty minutes consigning our life savings to a triple-leveraged ETF hoping to make enough money for that new TV.

A recent survey on Comet, a student loan refinancing website, found that 41% of Millennials would ditch their partner for a “life-changing” promotion.  What can you say, they have their priorities.

Today, 44 percent of people earning between $40,000 and $100,000 said they could not come up with $400 in an emergency.  Worse, of those earning greater than $100,000, 27 percent also could not.  

Have you ever noticed how money often brings out the worst in us?  Of course, you have.  

History is littered with the infamous who murdered for money - Capone, Gotti, Escobar - and “white collar” criminals who just stole money - Rockefeller, Skilling, and Madoff.  At least the former were honest thieves.  

Some people will eat a cow’s brain on national TV, sell heroin to a pregnant woman, or even “steal the pennies of a dead man’s eyes” for a buck.

Recently someone stole a fire chief’s wallet from his truck while the fire chief was off saving homeowners in the Santa Cruz mountains.  The thief then proceeded to empty the fire chief’s bank account.

Despite our good intentions, money has the power to make us do bad things.

What about the small-time misdemeanors?  

Have you ever stolen a handful of fishing lures from K-Mart after your grade-school friend showed you how?  I have.  Have you ever bought a Volvo 240 DL with an undisclosed rusted-out hole in the floorboard and then re-sold it without disclosing the same hole?  I have.  Have you ever sold a service without revealing a $3.00 monthly fee while justifying it to your conscience, “But I’m saving him thousands of dollars annually!?”  I have.

Every time I’m reminded of K-Mart’s bankruptcy, the nice family that bought the Volvo, or the unsuspecting small business owner, my mind contracts with shame.  Ruth Denison was right, “Karma means you don’t get away with nothin’”.  

Bottom line:  for many of us, we devote our waking hours to unfulfilling jobs, and what little time is left is consumed spending the money we earn, and then some, making up for the byproduct - all the anxiety, worry, and fear - of making money.  

If you’re reading all this and thinking to yourself, I know, people are such idiots for being slaves to money, you are deluding yourself. A glance around your own home would undoubtedly reveal a trove of shiny objects that once seduced you with an empty promise but are now silently collecting dust on the living room counter.

But it’s not just individuals who are gaga over money.  From business to banking, politics to medicine, non-profit to religion, money is the invisible and universal guiding hand.

Money Is The New Religion

Did you know ours is the only for-profit healthcare system in the world?  And what about spending more money than we have?  Organizations, governments (and people) are more indebted today than at any other time since the start of the industrial revolution, a testament to capitalism’s raging triumph (or failure).  

What about education; is it more about learning or laying the foundation for a child’s future prosperity?  

After all, while elementary in its logic, virtually every parent harbors the same fear:  if my kid doesn’t go to a good college, or even go to college, he or she will have a difficult life. And the better the brand-name university, the higher the pay and the better their life, right? People with degrees are richly rewarded while those without are financially punished.

This explains why, for decades, universities have been able to raise tuition three times the rate of inflation without losing ‘customers’, Buffett’s key determinant of a good ‘business’.  And aren’t universities - even public ones - a business, after all?

Yet how can we blame parents?  Fueled by globalism and skyrocketing housing prices, parents and students compete in a global arms race to get into the top schools, and in some states, public schools too.  While demand continues to climb, supply remains fixed; Stanford, Harvard, and Oxford have no plans to franchise.  

Even the holiest of havens - churches and religions - are entangled in the forces of money.  

Just as pets are the new children and devices are the new nature, money is faithfully eroding Christianity as every person’s religion.  After all, what is more immediate and pressing, the latest kitchen cabinet color, or the existential nature of our humanity?

In a series of open and closed-ended questions, the Pew Research Center surveyed Americans to learn where we find meaning in life.  In the open-ended questions, career and money were mentioned most frequently after family but ahead of spirituality, friends, hobbies, health and learning.  Yet in the closed-ended questions, the outdoors, friends, pets, music, reading, and religion were chosen ahead of career or money.

This suggests to me that while the unconscious mind is preoccupied with career and money, when prompted, people are reminded of the types of things that actually bring meaning to their lives - like nature and reading.  We’re told to stop and smell the roses, yet we tend to rush past them in our ordinarily busy lives.

If Marx were alive today, he would likely observe that money has replaced religion as the opioid of the people, the stock market its temple.  Yesterday we worshipped God, today we bow to money, what Shakespeare referred to as the “visible God”.  

“When it is a question of money, everybody is of the same religion.” - Voltaire

As they say, if you want to understand individual, organizational or governmental behavior, follow the money trail.

Only Thing Crazier Than Money Is Not Having It

Sarah Ferguson is not the only one bewitched by money's spell.  We all are, each of us seduced in our way.  And if our financial follies were aired, we too would be embarrassed, perhaps even humiliated.

For many, money itself becomes the object and the goal rather than what it is - a means to an end.  In the process, money comes to dominate our daily lives while making us unblessed beasts.  

“But that’s the nature of money” cautioned Phil Knight, founder of Nike.  “Whether you have it or not, whether you want it or not, whether you like it or not, it will try to define your days.  Our task as human beings is not to let it.”

Money-induced insanity aside, the only thing more crazy is trying to live without money.  Like all things, money is good, in moderation.  Sure, you can make a lot of it, and let it control your life if you want to, but it may not be worth the price.  

After all, if you were to gain wealth like the Duchess of York while messing up your life, or simply neglecting the things that make life worth living, wouldn’t that change the definition of success?